Ethiopia’s passion for bureaucracy – BBC

August 10th, 2009 Print Print Email Email

As she prepares to leave Addis Ababa, the BBC’s Elizabeth Blunt reflects on the intense level of officialdom she has encountered in Ethiopia which she believes reveals much about the nature of power and responsibility in Ethiopian society. (more…)

As she prepares to leave Addis Ababa, the BBC’s Elizabeth Blunt reflects on the intense level of officialdom she has encountered in Ethiopia which she believes reveals much about the nature of power and responsibility in Ethiopian society.

“ A rubber stamp conveys absolute authority, and without it no document is genuine ”

I had not been in Addis Ababa very long when one of my predecessors came to visit.

His first question took me by surprise.

It was not, “How was I getting on,” or “What was going on in Ethiopia,” but: “Did I still have the BBC rubber stamp?”

Actually I did. Small, round, wooden handled, not particularly impressive.

“Good”, he said. “Don’t lose it. You won’t believe how long it took me to get it.”

At that point I had no idea what he was talking about.

My notion of rubber stamps came from countries like Nigeria, where every street corner boasted a small plywood booth where the local rubber-stamp maker plied his trade.

Getting a rubber stamp was just a matter of paying your money and coming back in the afternoon to collect it.

A good rubber stamping gave a letter a nice air of authority, but it was not something to be taken too seriously.

But not in Ethiopia. There a rubber stamp conveys absolute authority and without it no document is genuine.

This was brought home to me when I lost both my passport and residence permit. The immigration department offered me a temporary permit, to tide me over for a few days until my new passport arrived.

I showed them the duplicated slip I had just been given by the British embassy, informing me that replacement passports were now printed in Kenya and the process took at least six weeks.

The official peered at it very doubtfully.

“How do I know this is really from the British Embassy?” and finally, the killer argument: “It doesn’t have a rubber stamp.”

Of course something this important cannot just be bought on any street corner.

My predecessor had gone through an elaborate process of getting official authorisation – a “Fikad” – complete with rubber stamp from the authorising ministry, before a BBC stamp could be issued.

Ethiopia’s obsession with these authorisations can be written off as insane bureaucracy, or as a make-work scheme to provide jobs for civil servants. It is both of those, but above all it is a way of shifting responsibility.

Take my problem with the satellite phone or satphone which served as an antenna for the BBC studio. I had taken it to London for repair and on the way back I was stopped at customs.
“ It is the Catch-22 answer everyone in Ethiopia dreads: ‘I cannot give you permission because you do not need permission’ ”

The customs officer clearly had no idea what it was but he certainly was not prepared to get into trouble for letting me bring it into the country.

It is the Catch-22 answer everyone in Ethiopia dreads: ‘I cannot give you permission because you do not need permission’

“Did I have authorisation for it?”

“Er, no whose authorisation did I need?”

With the air of a man making it up as he went along he thought for a moment, then proclaimed “the Telecommunications Agency,” and impounded the satellite phone.

Waiting game

The next day I presented myself at the agency.

“Was I going to connect it to the Ethiopian telephone system?”


“Was it going to interfere with wireless transmissions?”


The official there looked relieved. Then I did not need his permission.

That clearly was not going to do at all.

Without a piece of paper and a rubber stamp I was never going to get the satphone back.

It is the Catch-22 answer everyone in Ethiopia dreads: “I cannot give you permission because you do not need permission.”

Please, please would he give something, anything, with a rubber stamp on it to show to customs.

He weakened. Well all right, but only if I got an authorisation from the Ministry of Information.

So off to the information ministry, where the official in charge of the foreign press was friendly, but far too wily a bureaucrat to get caught giving me permission to have some dubious piece of satellite technology.

He offered an attestation that I was a fully accredited and responsible journalist. With a stamp.

“Not good enough,” said the Telecoms Agency. “Try again.”

This went on for some time until finally everyone’s back was covered. I was allowed to pay an eye-watering sum of money in customs duty and retrieve my equipment.

Rubber-stamped dictatorship

Of course the dark side of this is that if nothing can be done without an authorisation, then with an authorisation, anything becomes permissible, and all responsibility is lifted from your shoulders.

In the days of the Derg, the brutal military dictatorship that ruled Ethiopia from the mid-1970s until 1991, every arrest, every interrogation, every killing was documented, authorised, and filed.

And every piece of paper was kept, and is still there, in a vast, chilling archive. And every single sheet, I am prepared to bet, carries the correct rubber stamp.

Meanwhile I have carefully filed all the paperwork relating to the satphone, and if I go back to Addis Ababa in years to come I will check that my successor still has it.

It may seem a strange question, but you will not believe how long it took me to get it.

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  1. Saba
    | #1

    Ayee Woyane, they are still in Dedebit age.

  2. Semay
    | #2

    I have nothing against E.Blunt. I think she is a better person than any BBC so called journalists in the region/era. However, she must stop thinking as a superiority race and she can do and get anything in Africa as she wishes. That time is over. If you don’t like the way others are living in their own country, you are free to leave. No body forces you to be in Ethiopia. It is your choice to be there in the name of BBC for your govt secret agenda in Africa. Because BBC is known by many Africans the British govt weapon to affect Africa since the African colonization. BBC plaid roles during the African freedom fighting era. We all know what roles it played. Was it for the African independency and freedom and against British?

    Why the BBC journalists are in Africa? Are they asked and hired by the African govts? What is their purpose of their presence to be there? Don’t tell us to tell the African story to the world? Because what you are telling to the world about Africa are all selected, exaggerated and repeated bad images. Especially if you don’t like a specific govt/country, o God you work in the name of BBC is too nasty.
    Do you remember ( BBC) your evil and pure racist attack against the Innocent Ethiopians from Tigry Region in 1984? You presented them to the world with the most horrifying image in the name of helping them. Are you sure that was the way helping them?
    You even organized world in their name wide concert, dance and music cheating the world best singers and Musicians to come together to entertain the world in the name of Hungry people. Instead of giving secretly military assistance to fight against each other, why don’t you give the people food assistances without damaging the innocent people being as human the same as you do. You are happy to see something bad in Africa and too quick to bring it all over the world. You are working day and night to create conflicts among Africans in Africa telling lies about sensitive issues. In your country are living different kinds of races, tribes, clans coming from all over the world with different religions, customs, traditions, habits and language. There are about 200 languages spoken in UK today.
    Yet, you are coming to Africa to create differences among the African people based on tribes despite they are the same race.

    No an African media and journalist is in London working for Africa. Why are you in Africa and in this case Ethiopia after all? We need investment, education and other practical relationships with you. We don’t need BBC to talk about us with selected bad images.. We need practical approach. We don’t need BBC to interrupt and stop us from development activities. Because we Africans know BBC is there in Africa not for the sake of Africa but to be against Africa.
    But thanks to situation, the world is changing very dramatically every day and occasion. There are trusted, true and really human friends nations all over the world started from china.
    Africans are living in Europe at the lowest ladder for something good and at the highest for something bad. However We don’t want you to feel in Africa the same way Africans are feeling in Europe. We need you to respect and live the same way the locals are. In a country where faith is the determining factor to the day to day lives, your money has no value at all to make you feel better than them.
    Don’t say something bad about Ethiopia because you are leaving. Be a honest person regardless the time and places you are.

  3. Abay Mado
    | #3

    We don’t need BBC in Africa/Ethiopia. What is the benefit to us BBC being there? Is it to tell the African story to the world? Thanks to BBC the world know Africa every day for long time with negative images. If it is necessary, we will tell our story by our self to the world. The African hero, Mugabe is the only person has won a fierce battle against the bbc. And he will be remembered for long time for that.
    Don’t you see it? It is the www era.

    I’m afraid and worry BBC is cocking a nasty poison secretly to create conflicts in Ethiopia using the next election as an opportunity. I hope the govt and people realises that and take every step to prevent it. If we don’t take care about our matters, BBC will not do that. Instead our bad and negative news are the BBC’s hot, breaking and best news. We have to think about it.
    If the govt, oppositions and the people are not 100% sure that the election will be good for Ethiopia, don’t do it. Learn from Kenya. Learn from the 2005 election. Learn from other part of the world. Election is becoming the best tools to the outsiders/foreign Medias to use it as an opportunity to create civil wars and damage the country’s economy. Before conducting any election in Ethiopia, the conditions must be certain and the best. Or else we don’t want any election.
    Only Ethiopians are responsible the best and also the worst to be happened to their county. We have to behave as smart, healthy, wise, cleaver and good to one another for our sake. If we don’t do that, we are giving holes and opportunities to the outsiders to affect us badly while pretending they are doing something good for us. We are the one can do something good for ourselves. If we don’t, no one will do. Instead it will clap for us to continue hurting against each other. Learn from the past. There are thousands reasons in the past to learn from including our behaviours towards the bad foreign govts, media, individual and so on.

    Think, think, and think very deeply, widely and seriously about the coming Ethiopian election. Don’t give an opportunity to the foreign enemies to use it as an opportunity to create conflicts as it was happened in Kenya. We must not be selfish and/or reluctant for something that would affect the innocent Ethiopian people badly as we have seen in Kenya. The Govt, oppositions and the people must be totally ready for best outcome election.

    I don’t care who is going to win, but I do care very much and worry about the post election situation. Any individual, group and opposition that is preaching an Ethnic, tribal or religion differences must be identified and get justice before affecting the innocents. All illegal weapons including Gajira, machete, Knife, gun and the likes all over the country must be collected before the election.

    I hope, we will do that by coming together for the sake of all of us.

  4. Tekeste
    | #4

    Hey guys, grow up she didn’t do anything wrong, she wrote what all of us expirenced(the fact) so try to be gentel on your words she is doing her job. Don’t burry head in to the sand.
    God bless Ethiopia & G7

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